The Decline of the American Empire (1986) (R)
















Perhaps it's the candid conversations about sex that make "The Decline of the American Empire" so entertaining. Or maybe it's the intricate way that Denys Arcand manages to not condemn his characters and their intertwining bedsheets. Still possible, it's the culmination of a lot of ideas thrown into a blender, coming out a delicious puree with only a few lumps.
The movie concerns men and women and their perspectives on sex and life. The women are away at a gym, exercising and gossiping about all the things they've done while the men are back at home making dinner for the women and bragging about their sexual conquests. It's this silence that both men and the women are supposed to partake in. Gossip to your friends, but don't reveal too much, and then you can get back to your normal life. There are so many skeletons in so many closets that we begin to understand a simple truth: no one is completely honest, even with the people that they love.
For the men, women are a simple number. They are pleasured and pleasurable. For the women, the mental game of making men squirm is sometimes more enjoyable than the act of love making itself.
At times, "The Decline of the American Empire" feels like watching a play of Libertines having a massive, intellectual orgy. Yet the idea remains a thread throughout: what constitutes personal happiness?
If the answer is sexual prowess than all the characters involved must have some form of personal happiness. Yet, like any "home drama with friends" movie like "The Celebration" or "The Big Chill" we know that the shit is going to hit the fan and when it does, it's not going to be easy to clean up.
Naturally, the movie's comedy gets replaced by drama as the movie drives toward its final conclusion with the question still hanging in the air: what is love (baby don't hurt me)?
Sorry I couldn't resist.
The movie's actors are all in top form here, never breaking from character; but the movie is so dependent on its themes built from its characters that I feel listing all of them and their complexities would not do either of them justice.
Let's just keep this one vague for a little while.
Arcand chooses to shoot in only a few locations with the fervor and tenacity of Woody Allen, as well as the ease. His humor rolls off the tongue easily. His situations are never too complex nor too heart-breaking nor too humorous for his audience.
He trusts the viewer with a story that is short of plot, heavy on character and ideals.
But by the end of it all, he doesn't reach into a hat and try to pull forth an answer to it all, that would be too cheap and he knows it. Instead, Arcand is slyly suggesting about the ways of a society built on ideas of "man" and "woman" may be flawed.
The occupants of "The Decline of the American Empire" are all obsessed with fitting a stereotype while masquerading as different. There is no uniqueness here except for the uniqueness of a filmmaker.
If none of that made sense: it's a great movie.










Score: ★★★½

The Conformist (1970) (R)
















If you ever wanted to know what style really looked like in a film, "The Conformist" is the movie to watch. It is so dedicated to its visual appeal and its fashion that many times the story falls second to the splendor that the eye can take in. The camera whirls and pushes, the sets dazzle, and often times the costumes match the lighting. The result of the combination of all these things is a ravishing feast for the eyes, an exquisite banquet. Unfortunately this means that the plot, which is supposed to be the one thing uniting the style, is a secondary aspect of the film.
Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is possibly the worst spy. He's a coward, weak-willed, and not firmly committed to Fascism. tsk tsk. "The Conformist" doesn't work in a linear method, often making loops and dream sequences part of the norm. To recount the linear plot wouldn't be fruitful because half the fun is understanding just what the hell is going on.
As Marcello comes closer and closer to his end goal: the assassination of a anti-Fascist sympathizer, he becomes intertwined with a few femme fatales. The first is his wife, an quasi-innocent, sex-driven girl named Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). Their relationship is based in the secrets that they keep from each other. It's a sexy, almost derisive relationship that we can't really seem to understand.
The second woman is the wife of the target, Anna (Dominique Sandra), a smoldering blonde that reminds Marcello of a prostitute that he embraced but did not have sex with....yeah, things get a little weird here.
Torn between two sexy women, though preferences shifting drastically towards Anna, Marcello has the government to think about also. Perhaps it's Bertolucci's small way of poking fun at the idea of nationalistic pride, but when you consider that Marcello is more concerned about getting with someone instead of the fate of his country, the idea of patriotism is up for commentary.
"The Conformist" is steeped in lies, mostly about the closet. There is a deep underlying thread of homoerotica that manages to reflect a Fascistic mirror. In here, being gay is almost like being a Fascist; but don't worry, it doesn't come across as insulting as that.
As Marcelloa, Jean-Louis Trintignant isn't given enough time to show his acting abilities and his co-stars are rarely anything less than charming. The acting is easy in the film, an easy success that is, because it requires little to nothing more than a flip of the wrist and an upturned nose with a glass of champagne and a evening gown.
There is nothing more riveting than Sandrelli and Sandra in glorious dresses dancing with each other in front of an ogling crowd or the sight of Sandrelli in a striped gown seducing her fiance. It's the style, but I've said that before.
When you consider Bertolucci's other work like "Last Tango in Paris" which was just Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider having sex in a room for the entire movie or "The Last Emperor" which tried to condense thirty plus years into three hours, "The Conformist" sees Bertolucci at the height of his powers, biting off just the right amount to control.
"The Conformist" sometimes feels like "The Conversation", simply because of the predator/prey way in which it is shot; but by the end of the film, Bertolucci has abandoned all rational ideas of creating an espionage thriller and is primarily focused on the introspective horrors of Marcello's sexuality...or Fascism..or both.
Who knows? Either way, it's just so darn pretty to look at that the plot not holding up really doesn't matter.









Score: ★★★½

Inside Out (2015) (PG)
















"Inside Out" is a venture into the unknown recesses of your brain. The tagline once read: "say hello to the voices in your head" which, while taken out a context would be a great poster for a horror movie, is actually not entirely accurate. These aren't exactly voices, these are crystalized, anthropomorphized emotions that inhabit the heads of all of us. But don't get confused, because we're only just getting started.
In the beginning there was Joy (Amy Poehler) and she was happy in the head of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Then there was Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and the two started making memories of conflicting emotions. Then three more: Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) and then it was complete...or so Pixar's newest movie would have you believe.
"Inside Out" is first and foremost a hugely ambitious work that tries to be intellectually challenging and rigorously fun as well as emotionally powerful. It's this kind of conglomerations of all things beautiful that Pixar has mastered so well in the past and for certain "Inside Out" is miles ahead of anything that has been released by the studio in the last few years; but that doesn't make it perfect.
The first thing you should know about the movie is that it is relentlessly fun. The complexities of the human mind are mocked, flipped upside down, and puns are made from them. It's respectful, cheeky, and wildly colorful...which brings me to another point.
"Inside Out" owes a lot to "Wreck-It Ralph" for the visual imagery alone. The "islands of personality" are taken straight from the Disney movie's landscape, which in turn was ripping off "Monsters Inc." but hey, we got to stop somewhere, right?
If you watch "Inside Out" with the light-hearted abandon of a child, maybe nothing will stick out to you; but if you follow the rabbit trails down to their roots, the intellect begins to disappear. Things don't logically add up in the movie, like how Riley is a person separated from her emotions and yet unique and yet without them, she falls into a stasis of numb grayness. Then there's the issue of sentience and autonomy...how much power do these emotions really have?
Let's push those thoughts away for a second.
In Riley's head there is a control panel that all the emotions fight over to help Riley through the day. Naturally, it's Joy that we like seeing at the helm for the most of the time and the memories created are balls of yellow light.
It's kind of like "Minority Report" and "Wreck-It Ralph" had a baby and this baby was really hyper and really smart; but not complete. For that's what the movie is suggesting: a lack of wholeness. Riley is the sum of her parts, yet an individual at the same time...this is confusing.
Perhaps it's just better to stay for the ride, because the break-neck speed that "Inside Out" plows through its plot-line which is almost enough to give someone whiplash; but it's a whole lot of fun.
The newest Pixar movie is very, very entertaining and very colorful and filled with great voice acting.
I think it was missing a little maturity to pull the whole thing together. After all, for a movie about emotions that take over from one second to the next, it gives us little time to digest each moment properly before being triggered to laugh or cry.
But I did laugh and cry...so I guess that it worked rather well.











Score: ★★★½

Red Desert (1964)
















There's always a sense of trepidation that I face when I go up against a big movie. Take for instance my reviews of "The Godfather" and "Citizen Kane", neither of which I liked—these reviews left me with a sense of "oh no, I'm pissing off the movie gods"; but hey, nothing came of it. Yet when looking down on "Red Desert" I can say with all the assurance that I can find: "pretentious" has never fit a movie better.
Michelangelo Antonioni is a huge name in cinema for his masterpieces and his contemplative works. With "Red Desert", his first color feature—yeah, great title, by the way—he takes us to a place where no person should ever be taken: sheer and utter boredom. The movie is only two hours long, standard, right? No, this feels like your stuck in a room watching Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly wrestle in Jell-O while screaming their propaganda at each other. Wait, no, that actually sounds vaguely interesting. This is nothing like that.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is a person of many emotions. She's clearly mentally unstable and the presence of many male figures around her makes her seem uneasy. Near the beginning of the movie we see an uncomfortable scene with her and husband that maybe was supposed to be both romantic and illuminating but came across as kind of pervy and also abusive. So, there's that to look forward to.
The very first scene we see features Giuliana going up to some strange guy and buying his half-eaten sandwich and then running away in the bushes to nibble on it like some kind of righteous squirrel. I swear to God, I can't make this stuff up.
Giuliana has got mental health issues that Antonioni seems to chalk up to her feminine persuasion and if that is not the case, then certainly the movie makes a complicated time at getting at the real point: it's all about the technology.
Giuliana's husband works at a plant that billows poisonous gas into the clouds. Everything we see Giuliana do is in direct rejection of this visual cue of the highly industrialized world. It's like Charles Dickens wrote a really tedious work and then filmed it—well, that's not really that far-fetched is it?
Okay, I think I'm being too critical.
"Red Desert" has all the appeal of eating popcorn while watching your parents sleep.
The movie is suggesting that technology is turning this woman crazy and the finer things in life like nature—here we break for a story-telling, dream-like sequence feature a tropical beach and a young girl swimming to find an operatic voice that is housed in rocks that remind her a flesh because everyone's actually singing...again, can't make this up—but the irony is so thick that I'm surprised Antonioni can even make his movie with a clean conscience.
Because, you see, as his first color movie, Antonioni is making a commentary on technology by using a technology. Indeed, some of the most potent visual metaphors come from the use of color and condemn this industrialized world; but for me, it just looks like Antonioni shooting himself in the foot.
As writer and director, he doesn't seem to know how women work. He, like Hitchcock, is baffled and obsessed with them, and thus they act ridiculously. Sexually loose when the time calls for it, and always on the verge of crying nonsensically, Giuliana is not a fun protagonist to have.
The movie drags on like it was in another dimension and eventually we see the end point: ooh, it's all bad. Now let's go home.
Oh, and Richard Harris is in the movie...but I'm not sure he even realized that.










Score: ★★

Shadows (1959)


















Considering the legacy it leaves behind—by "it" I refer to the movie and the director—"Shadows" does indeed cast a long one. The film can be seen now as a template for independent film making and often finds its way onto "best of the undiscovered" lists. A movie ahead of its time in terms of the power given to its characters to define themselves and by the message it portrays, "Shadows" is still remarkably relevant today; but perhaps not that enjoyable.
More jazzy than Scorsese, director John Cassavetes shocked critics and some audiences when "Shadows" premiered as his debut work. Sadly, Cassavetes never was a box-office smash hit, but his movie brought in a great deal of critical acclaim and are still considered to be American masterpieces.
"Shadows" fits this perfectly; but somehow we don't feel the film bleed like Cassavetes' others do.
The movie surrounds a family living in New York. Ben (Ben Carruthers) is a failing singer, whose pride may cometh before his fall. When he deems something inappropriate for an artist to do (such as introduce the next act), he will fight for his point of view and often will lose jobs and money because of it. Also, his talent is slowly going out of style as the Beat-Era kids want more fast-tempo, less crooning pieces and Ben is unable to keep up.
His kid brother Tony (Anthony Ray) is not that much better off. Tony spends his nights with his pals trying to pick up "broads" and getting drunk, sometimes starting fights. Tony is a jazz musician who plays the trumpet, but we never see him play during the movie.
Then there's Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) who is a little high in her seat, but lovable nonetheless. She likes men with intellect, men who seize the opportunity, and men who allow her to be herself. It is only when she is pressured into situations that her fierce anger or deep sadness will erupt. She will not be confined.
But then, there's the color problem. All parts of the minority, Ben suffers the greatest because he is the darkest among his siblings. Perhaps he's trying to prove a point to white America about stereotypes they indulge in; but the film is never explicit enough to say this. He has a short temper, regardless.
Tony does not even seem bothered by race, it does not really factor into his day-to-day routines. One scene allows us to notice him picking up a white girl and flirting with her. It is shot so matter-of-factly that we cannot question its authenticity.
Lelia is the one who suffers the most from race because she looks the whitest. The moment that one of her lovers discovers that her brothers are black, the romance is halted and cannot continue. Lelia is left trying to assemble some sort of dignity from a world that wants her to be two different things: completely white or completely black.
But what is it to "be black"? Maybe that's what Cassavetes wants to ask without asking it. It's very important to note that "racism" is not mentioned in the movie, nor is race itself. We see it in the actions of the characters on the tips of the tongues, but it never gets spoken.
Cassavetes gives this family the ability to define themselves and they don't. This isn't a movie steeped in racial ideas like "Do the Right Thing" is; but it does not disappear from the screen.
The ideas aren't crystallized enough for a commentary and the characters aren't likable enough for "Shadows" to function as a drama. Instead, it balances between the two and we can see how far Cassavetes progressed in his story-telling.
"Shadows" isn't bad, but it really isn't that great either. A powerful debut for the time period to be sure, but its jazz goes a little flat with the years...simply by the horrors of a film aging.










Score: ★★½

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
















I'm not fan of Luis Buñuel, but maybe that's because I've only been exposed to his older movies. Cerebral, experimental, and insane...things like "L'Age d'Or" or "Un Chien Andalou" where nothing matters and the rules are made up. But then there is "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" which parades around, dressed in its own decadence with a wit fit to kill and a style that will make you scream with happiness.
The first half of the movie, nay, most of the movie is eaten up with the main characters pissing away time. They flit and flirt and drink and socialize and eat and meander and gossip and drink and smoke and chat and the camera takes notice of all of this. They aren't harmful people, not the grotesque upper class that we've come to expect from movies concerning the stratification of the classes, instead, they just seem unconcerned with it all. That's their right, they are after all, non-plussed.
Although the movie may seem plotless, the screen time is eaten up with situations that make commentary if nothing else. We see how these people are concerned with horoscopes, their gardens, but also they are not cruel. They offer their services to the military— Buñuel's opinion on the military is something else entirely, but that's for another day—and put themselves in a state of hosting for their friends many, many times.
They are casual bed fellows and affair of the body are taken with grains of salt. We are shown some infidelities, but we really don't care because something becomes quite clear: these people do have a discreet charm of sorts.
We'd love nothing more than to break bread with them, to walk down the street with them hand-in-hand, to gossip about Miranda (a fictional country that one of them serves as ambassador to), or to go play tennis with them.
For the majority of the movie, it all makes sense. As a sly, poking fun at these people Buñuel makes it his job to never put them out or to deny them a sense of character, but maybe he's angry at the institution that they encompass. Whatever way you look at it, his narrative is far from fractured.
But then we hit the second half of the movie and Buñuel flexes his surrealist six-pack. The movie doesn't go so far as to make my head hurt or to give the audience a plethora of visual cues with no formality as to how to assemble them in a logical (or illogical sense). Instead, we get a clear painted surrealism—one that deals with dreams within dreams and ghosts returning to posts and mass murdering riflemen,
It's all quite thrilling actually.
It makes me want to put on a suit, or get dolled up in a dress and head out to a cocktail party, to forget the complexities and emotions of everyday life and when confronted with them—as evidenced by a funeral in one scene—to feel only slightly uncomfortable.
Maybe the charm of the movie is the smile always on the face of the characters. The effortless winning that spirals out in situations after situations, reality after reality.
After all, who doesn't want to be an easy, cocaine-smuggling success?









Score: ★★★★

Jurassic World (2015) (PG-13)















I may be a bit biased when it comes to "Jurassic World" because "Jurassic Park" is one of my favorite movies of all time. The book as well. So when it comes to "Jurassic World" which was supposed to breathe new life into a franchise that petered out and died with each following movie in its trilogy, I find the result nothing but lacking. Sure, there's dino action, and it's highly enjoyable; but there's not enough to make up for a multiple of sins.
The movie's timeline doesn't completely discount the sequels to "Jurassic Park" but it is definitely more interested in ripping off its father, which reminds us of something to keep in mind: the innovation of the original. "Jurassic Park" is the moment in cinema history where you can see everything changing, because of CGI...and when the original still looks sleeker than its reboot some twenty-two years later, you might have a budgetary issue. All of "Jurassic World" lines up exactly—linearly, physically, and metaphorically—like "Jurassic Park" and it almost becomes reductive...well, scratch that. It is reductive.
At the center of the movie we have two young adolescents who come to the park because someone in their family works there. Sound familiar? These youngsters are Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) and they don't have last names but they do have a serious of stereotypical complexes. They are children of soon to be divorced parents (Judy Greer serves as a loving mother), Gray is the younger, more obsessed with dinos child *coughTimcough* and Zach is the older, more sexually minded boy. He has a girlfriend back home who he is sad to leave—his father joking calls out of the car while waiting for him "you're not going to war!"—but it seems like she doesn't matter because Zach (and the camera) ogles every sixteen year old girl with a thin body and a pretty face. It's pretty insulting to teenage boys, teenage girls, the writers, and the audience. C'mon. We know you can do better. I bet even Michael Bay was all like "wow, that's in poor taste!"
Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, it's not that bad.
Gray and Zach's aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) works as a...er...um...a...like...dino expert/park manager person. We don't really get a clear title, but it seems like when the owner isn't present, she's in charge and she's a no-nonsense, practically fierce haircut kind of girl. Her calendar is so packed that she doesn't really have time for family which is why she isn't present to welcome the boys when they step off the ship.
The film treats Claire very poorly mainly because she's an unmarried, career woman with no children. Oops, I mean, your patriarchy is showing. Seriously, this doesn't escape the audience because as I was leaving the theater a group of people were saying "I didn't realize the gender issues were going to be that bad." That bad indeed. It's fairly insufferable...and even more obviously insulting is the all-white garb and slicked coif we have to see poor Claire in. It's only when she lets her sexuality in, her sweaty, lustful, survival side—that her blouse gets opened and her hair gets mussed. Ooh, sexy doctors.
If you think I'm being too PC or just picky, I beg of you to watch how the film deals with the character named Zara...please, just...it's...wow.
I think that's enough for my sexism talk, though it might show up again.
Enter bad-ass raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) who is the alpha to the velociraptors and a sad substitute for both Alan Grant and Robert Muldoon. Owen is a certified good-looking, well-muscled, condescending, rough-tuff, fix a motorcycle and drink a product placement Coke kind of guy.
Then we find ourselves missing an Ian Malcolm and instead of Jeff Goldblum we get the movie's comedic relief in the control room—Jake Johnson of "New Girl" fame and Lauren Lapkus fresh off of "Orange Is the New Black". Both of them are comedic actors and neither do well in the quasi-tense environment the movie tries to create.
So where's the actual plot?
Okay, if you haven't seen the trailer let me sum it up for you: Jurassic World is opening twenty years after Jurassic Park and it's gotten bigger, scarier, and cooler. Now they are getting ready to introduce a new predator: a hybrid made in a test tube. But, aw shucks, maybe it's too smart and maybe we shouldn't have mixed Stephen Hawking's DNA into it, because it can outwit us all.
There you have it. That's it.
What we're missing from this is the chauvinism of changing male roles, like Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the owner of the park. He lectures Claire about her professional demeanor and tells her she needs to "feel the animals" a little bit more....whatever the hell that means. He tells her that you can tell if the dinos are hurting by looking in their eyes; but Claire seems to see just dollar bill signs when she looks at the creatures. Then, randomly, Simon changes gears and when this hybrid starts creating issues, he tells people they can't kill it because it cost him $26M. Right...like...maybe you should look into its eyes and tell that it's hurting.
Celine Dion eat your heart out.
So of course Claire and Owen have to have to some of sexual chemistry that "Jurassic Park" lacked because Grant and Sattler never kissed. Of course they have to have stilted dialogue and obvious foreshadowing of a PG-13 kiss that might come later.
There's a wonderful moment in "Jurassic Park" where Sattler tells Hammond he can shove it because #girlpower! This would never fly in "Jurassic World" where we see Claire teeter on her heels all movie long—though to her credit, she can really work them—and be the absolute and complete inferior to Owen.
The comedy is unneeded and out of place, the romance is stiff and unnatural, and the Mercedes-Benz thing gets really old really quick. We get it, you like Mercedes, stop showing the hood of the car!
Claire has to learn her lesson in empathy and she does this with a mock-up SNL-like scene of the triceratops section of "Jurassic Park" where the new film makers flex their muscles and show that...well, the animatronics of the original were far better because poor Betsy the sick brachiosaurus looks more like a sock puppet than an actual dino. Better luck next time guys, good thing Howard proved she can cry on command on Conan...say that five times fast.
Besides the fact that "Jurassic World" has a terrible, unforgivable script that blunders and stumbles into cliche after cliche, the movie is actually short on dino action. If you take a clue from the last truly successful action flicks like "Mad Max: Fury Road" or "Godzilla" even, you'd know that the audience actually wants to see the action! But we don't really get that until the last twenty minutes, and those are fun, if overblown to exhaustion.
Yet, the movie is supposed to feel 20,000 times bigger because there's that much more human meat available. Sadly it doesn't. Never. Not even once.
I'd try to end with a dino pun, but nothing comes to mind.
Sorry.









Score: ★★

Stranger by the Lake (2013) (Unrated)
















"Stranger by the Lake" was notable for two reasons when it came out: its thriller atmosphere that compressed, chilled, and horrified its audience; and its unashamed, unblinking look at homosexual intercourse, including some visuals that the common viewer was not accustomed to. This just proves that Europe is far ahead of America in these regards because something like this, or like "Wetlands" would be impossible to make in the United States. The closest thing we have (that was a success, mind you) is Steve McQueen's "Shame" and that was a ratings controversy in of its because it does not even come close to chowing what "Stranger by the Lake" shows.
Does that really matter or is it just part of the film?
Well, that's a good question and I think it does merit mentioning because the sex scenes were actually the only part of "Stranger by the Lake" that I had an actual problem with. It seemed gratuitous and I understand the underground movement or art cinema that is bringing queer sexuality and all its glories to the forefront, but my mind just wants to know: isn't something better left for the imagination?
When Alain Guiraudie (the writer and director) takes a step back and lets a little shadow cover a certain area, the intrigue is still kept, as is the sexiness.
Besides what the film postulates about the homosexual man's ability to make rational decisions—or his ability to occupy a sane frame of mind, for that matter—are not the point. The point is "Stranger by the Lake" exceeds far and beyond as a thriller, and nothing more. Don't try to read cultural connotations into it (though that may be impossible for some, me included), because you'll be denying yourself the pleasure of spine-tingling suspense. I can't remember being on the edge of my seat so intensely in quite a long time. 
What makes "Stranger by the Lake" great is that it stretches out the anxiety, it lets the pressure build and build until you feel like you might explode out of your very skin...and then it denies you that. The suspense parts are short and far between.
The movie is focalized entirely at a gay cruising beach where men come to suntan in the nude and hook-up in the bushes. The film is not shy about the hips, the groin, or the legs. It allows the viewer to see every crevice and every desexualized part of the body. It's not that erotic, all things considered. Even though sex is a huge part of the movie, the sexiness of it I would say, is fairly low.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is coming back to the beach for the summer. He parks his car amidst the handful of others and treads down to the beach, his eyes searching for "his man", the one he'll want to have sex with.
He spots a loner, sitting off to the side and goes to introduce himself. This is Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao). Neither man seems interested in getting in the other's pants, but they do strike up a conversation and slowly become friends.
Franck is really interested in Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustached, muscled athlete who fits the man's man profile quite well. Michel is involved with another boy so Franck gets in line and complains to Henri about this.
But then...things take a turn for the interesting when Franck accidentally views a murder and from there, the nail-biting begins.
What makes the film such a success is the way Guiraudie chooses to film it. We can hear the crunch of the gravel, the waves of the lake, and the wind in the trees. There is no artificial lighting and we are dependent at all times on the moon or headlights from cars to light our screen. Sometimes it goes pitch black and we have to fill in the noises with our imagination. This can be absolutely terrifying, particularly given some of the movie's context.
But yet, it isn't seamless and the sex scenes do kind of detract from what could have been a knock-out thriller. I suppose it just had to be in there, oh well.
The acting here is top notch, the filming is unbelievably good, and the story-telling allows the space for real artistry to enter. This is the rebirth of a new idea: high art makes pulp fiction.
I kind of like that.















Score: ★★★½

The Mirror (1975)
















I think Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick may have a lot in common; but as a viewer I don't have a problem distinguishing the two: I don't speak Russian. As much as I would love to be bilingual, the language is not something I'm event remotely familiar with and thus, the poetry fails me. Malick is able to evoke from his movies a sense of deep resonating emotion that rolls like waves, corresponding with music, image, and voice over narration. With Tarkovsky, I feel like he is doing his best to try to accomplish the same thing and in this regard, "The Mirror" anticipates "The Tree of Life". But there's the disconnect between the languages and the actual longing, sorrow, happiness, and hauntings that might be present fall on deaf ears.
I also think that Malick does a defter (is that ever a word?) job at crafting a story that reflects a state of childhood seen through the lens of adulthood, in snippets, vignettes, and visual metaphors. It's only when adopting this mind set approaching "The Mirror" does it begin to make sense. Tarkovsky is the kind of director that is revered for the sake of reverence. We can see this in "Solaris" and in "The Mirror" among many, many other movies. He is considered to be one of the greats.
"The Mirror" begins with a hypnosis scene that makes little to no sense with the rest of the movie, except that it transports you into a mindset of submission for, like many of the "great" movies, you just are along for the ride. As if looking into a mirror and reflecting (see what I did there) on his past life, a man seems drawn to the image of his wife and his lover (both played by Margarita Terekhova). Here the film draws on the surreal. The narrator and his younger counterpart as well as his own son are all played by the same person—well, the younger two are anyways. So what does this do to a film that already complicates its fairly simple idea of reflection: it makes it almost impossible to understand.
The haunting imagery is reminiscent of Lars von Trier and "Antichrist" is sure to have stolen some moments from "The Mirror". Indeed, if we were to line up the films that seem to borrow Tarkovsky's stunning images we would be left with a list that includes everything from "Cloud Atlas" to "The White Ribbon". There is no doubt that visually, Tarkovsky is able to create something truly unique, but it is in his actual storytelling that it suffers.
I won't spend too much time on the movie itself besides noting how the slow-motion black and white filming makes the movie feel suspended in a liquid of some kind. This effect is almost spellbinding, but it brings up back down when we have to figure out why the hell we actually care about anything.
This is where Malick has to come back into the picture because he is so similar. Tarkovsky spends a lot of time on the figure of maternity, Terekhova does a really good job in the movie, as Malick might have done. He does not ponder the duality of mankind, but the idea of a lens is present. Also, he is less obsessed with evoking an emotion as much as keeping you prisoner to his world.
This makes me think of "The Double Life of Veronique" because, while beautiful to look at, I don't actually care about anything.
If this is a movie about reflection it should also be a movie about imagination because many scenes that our narrator (who remains curiously unseen) remembers or reflects on, he could not have been privy to. That's just something of importance that I think should be noted.
So for visuals, yes the movie is good. For anything that resembles an actual structure (and don't really get me started on how Malick does accomplish this while Tarkovsky doesn't), the movie suffers and you'll be left staring at the black screen of a laptop wondering what happened.
Then you might see your reflection and the irony will hit you like a bag of bricks.










Score: ★★½

Buffalo '66 (1998) (R)
















There's nothing funny about "Buffalo '66" though the movie tries to capture the damage of a broken mind with the fluffy air of romance...it does not treat nature its justice. Okay, so what the hell does that mean? While masquerading as some sort of twisted comedy, the underlying messages given to people in "Buffalo '66" are only disturbing, nothing more.
The movie begins as Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo, the writer and director) gets released from prison. He has to pee, really bad but he has to wait around for the bus, take them bus, and then find a bathroom. Everywhere is closed so he runs into a dance studio and tries to pee there but can't because some guy can't stop staring at how big his penis is....no joke, this is actually the first twenty minutes of the movie.
While it is easy to see the condensed plot-line and think "wow, this is a piece of crap", it's better to look at how Gallo frames his stories. He shoots "Buffalo '66" in a hyper-realistic way, borrowing from John Cassavetes, and uses a Tarantino flair of surrealism. It's campy, beautiful, and usually works seamlessly, which is why Gallo is able to get away with having the first twenty minutes of his movie be about a man trying to find a bathroom.
But then the movie hits a snag with the introduction of the female character. As Billy is searching for a bathroom, and inside the dance studio is Layla (Christina Ricci) who is dressed like a naughty doll. Her pouty lips, makeup , and cleavage don't really make tap-dancing class easy; but there you have it. On a side note, when we see her later, tap-dancing, we can tell that she had no idea what she's doing; but that's just a personal issue. After screaming at her and calling her loads of names, Billy has to ask for a quarter so he can use the pay phone to call his parents.
Two things we should talk about: Billy and his parents.
Billy first. Billy is a motor mouth, he can barely shut up when he gets going and when he turns off he turns off. Silent, brooding, emotionally damaged, and clearly scarred from a childhood from hell, Billy is not a nice person. He is pretty screwed up and we can see that in the way he treats Layla.
Second, his parents. His parents are so freakin' weird that it becomes hard to think they exist! Billy's mom (played by Anjelica Houston) is so obsessed with football that the one game that she missed was the game that she had to miss because she was giving birth to Billy. She regrets having him for this. His father (Ben Gazzara) is no different, and one flashback we see has the father strangling the family dog in front of his son.
So you add the parents to the boy and you get a full-feldged psychopath. Voila! Heeeeeeeere's Billy!
When he calls his parents when can see that he has constructed a ruse so that they don't know he was in prison. He tells them that he's bringing his girl over, but he doesn't have a girl, so what does a rational mind like Billy do? He nabs the first bitch he can find and shoves her in the car. Who is said woman? Layla of course!
The problem here is that Gallo is arrogant enough to think that Layla would immediately fall in love with Billy just because he's hot.
This is where the commentary needs to start about what movies are teaching men and women. This, more than anything else, is hard for me to say, because "Buffalo '66" as a movie is fine. The style is easy to watch and the acting is good; but I don't like what it is saying.
You're a critic, get over it!
Well, it's not that easy because here's the problem: Gallo shoots "Buffalo '66" in such a realistic fashion that the sudden love for Billy by Lalya can only be seen as lazy writing. It would not happen! He literally kidnaps her and she falls in love.
This isn't Stockholm Syndrome either because by the end of the movie, he finds meaning in his life by having love and the final image of the two is romantic.
Ew!
Please!
No!














Score: ★★½

The Boys in the Band (1970) (R)
















William Friedkin does not have a great track record for creating gay cinema. This is the guy best known for "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection"; but don't forget that he also made "Cruising" and "The Boys in the Band". Now, his intentions with "The Boys in the Band" are obviously good, because this is one of the first times in cinematic history that gay men occupied the main characters and were able to define themselves. Naturally, in response to a cultural perception and hatred towards homosexuals at the time, the movie wallows in the miseries of being gay while snapping its fingers with a one-two beat and brandishing a scarf.
These gay men must have been something quite unusual to see on the screen in 1970, only a year "Midnight Cowboy" lulled audiences into a soft sense of homo-erotica. The main characters in "The Boys in the Band" are at best stereotypical, but also human. They fulfill some sort of obligation that we had to pass through in order to make more complex works like "Weekend" and "Keep the Lights On" decades later. The first representation we saw on screen had to be of "screaming queens and fairies".
The set-up of the movie—based on the stage play and featuring the original stage actors—is fairly simple and confined to an apartment. Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is throwing a party for a friend. He's assembling all the gay men he knows, most of who fill some sort of deeper understanding of the gay man. There's Donald (Frederick Combs) who is Michael's best friend and also suffering under the pressures of being gay in the world he lives in. Michael and Donald's dialogue is filled with remorse and longing and, in joking fashion with a whistle and a wink, they are able to make light of some of the darkest situations.
This is how the film plays out, in fact, making light out of situations that don't deserve jokes to be made. This is where we get lines like:
There's nothing quite as good as feeling sorry for yourself
Life's a goddamn laugh riot
I hear if you put a knife under your chin it cuts your throat
The gay men here slog through their life, representative of the single night, the birthday party.
Near the beginning of the party, Michael gets a call from an old friend, Alan McCarthy (Peter White) who breaks down and starts crying on the phone, saying that he's got to see Michael. But Alan is a very conservative person and these boys, well, they're quite flamboyant. Alan is expected to come over soon and Michael urges his friends to tone down the gay a little bit before he shows up.
But then he shows up and the shit his the fan.
One guy in particular, Emory (Cliff Gorman), is the most "gay" of all the men. He stands out with his feminine gestures, his gay lisp, and his constant shifting in pronouns to all his friends...he calls them "Miss" or "Mary" or "she". It's his sass that brings out the worst in Alan and the rage against the evil homosexuals starts to boil in Alan as his simple straight mind tries to process all the information before him.
But that's not what the film is really about, it is about living in constant pain. There is pain of rejection, pain of love, and pain in assumption. Essentially, the movie—though it gets aces for representation in a world where there was none—is about how horrible it is to be gay, which is a fine sentiment and the film is more than capable of showing this; but it's the way it goes about it that I have issue with.
Take a birthday game, for example. Harold (Leonard Frey), the birthday boy himself, shows up and Michael starts drinking as the night gets emotional. In a drunken state of voyeuristic villainy, Michael decides that they should play a game: call the one person in the world that you love and tell them that you love them, if you complete all the steps, you get ten points. Ta-da!
The result of the game is watching men break down and emotionally fracture before your eyes while Michael is screaming for more. It's not pleasant and actually really freakin' weird, because who would play this game?
Anyway, my thoughts of the film are very conflicted. At one part, I'm happy that Friedkin and company had the courage to film and portray gay characters in the early 70s. On the other hand, the view is hardly illuminating and while the gay men get to voice themselves and command their own narratives, it's only under the guise that they should be miserable while doing it.
In film terms, it's well-done. Friedkin has an stylistic eye and it's easy to look at in those terms. But the writing, the actions—they are what I take issue with, not for the dated view, but for the sheer oddity.










Score: ★★½

Les Vampires (1915)




















Considering that the most famous images of "Les Vampires" consist of vampire-like costumes and Musidora's heavily makeup-ed face, leering at the camera, it comes as a surprise to know that this is no fancy horror movie, or a tale about the bat-man. Instead, this is a crime movie about a vicious gang who call themselves "The Vampires" and are virtually indestructible. In that way, "Les Vampires", for all its heavy vampire imagery, is playing coy with the viewer, and it's highly enjoyable that way.
It becomes almost irresponsible and a little ugly to condense Louis Feuillade's almost seven hour movie into a review of probably less than a thousand words. How can you possibly study and explain the nuances of every single scene, every plot twist, and the characters that come and go. For 1915, the body count is pretty high in "Les Vampires". Still, it seems unfair to do the film justice on paper...but I shall try.
It all begins with a reporter, a hack journalist of sorts, working on The Vampires. He wants to be the one who breaks the story of the gang; and fortune smiles on him. A man named Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) tries to steal the files on The Vampires and gets caught because...well, he's really not that clever. Our hero, Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) then gets caught up in the ring of crime as he is preyed upon by mysterious figures clad in black. 
Shot in ten episodes, "Les Vampires" is something that could be redone today if wanted. It makes my mouth water thinking about how Brian Fuller might re-imagine this in a miniseries. 
Anyways, as Philippe continues down the rabbit hole after the criminals, usually catching or dispatching one per episode, one of major importance, we are introduced to the notorious Irma Vep (Musidora). This woman—whose name is an anagram of "vampire"—is the shining star of the picture. Always brooding, always resourceful, and always filling her character to the brim, it's no wonder that Feuillade's movie made this woman into a star.
"Les Vampires" is the original "Goodfellas". It is one of the first crime movies that expands to give the violence its due and intrigue. In this way, there can be no other comparison than to Scorsese. "Les Vampires" is exhaustive in its recounting the crime and often can feel repetitive.
There is the oddest sense of humor randomly stirred into the movie. Particularly with Mazamette, who changes from a bad guy to an essential good guy. He likes to look at the camera and make Chaplin-esque mannerisms. It's not great for the way the movie treats death, because the levity isn't appreciated...but we move on and so does the film.
Seven hours. Let that sink in. Seven hours! There are really not that many movies that can suspend a narrative for that long and shooting in an episodic fashion allow Feuillade to get away with this. The narrative sometimes feels a little weak, but it never feels forced...which is certainly an accomplishment.
"Les Vampires" is not essential viewing, because I feel like it can be gleaned from a collection of other movies; but it does stand by itself in length alone. What other movie dared to be as violent (nothing in today's standards) or as edgy?
Banned in France for years after its release for "glorifying violence", the movie is now revered as a classic and it's not terribly surprising. It has all the makings for a good ol' crime opera.
You know, minus the opera.











Score: ★★★

The Fall (2006) (R)















There's something about children that evokes a childish imagination, a fairy-tale landscape. We see people flirt with this idea in books and movies from "The Chronicles of Narnia" to "Alice in Wonderland" and the list goes on. Children inhabit a land of fairy tales, and story-telling is exclusively for them. Yet never has a film given such power to the narrative story to a child! It is not only them as the listener, but it is them as the participant and the visualizer, therefore, it is their version of the story that we are seeing. "The Fall" takes this very seriously, making sure that we understand the levels of complexity within the story.
A man tells a story to a girl who then listens and imagines it...simple enough, right? Well, not so much because the girl holds the power over the viewer and sometimes the teller of the story. It's a vicious circle, a type of reverse maze that snakes backwards and starts to eat its on tail. But I wouldn't have it any other way, because it does not take long for the audience to understand what is happening...and for that, the trust that is placed into the viewers hands, I have to applaud the film.
Beginning in the early 20th century, we are set at a hospital, where a collection of odd characters bed next to each other, just needing to recuperate and get well. A young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is here with a broken arm. Deeply inquisitive and confident well beyond her years, she explores the grounds of the hospital and runs into an interesting man named Roy (Lee Pace). Roy seems to be suffering from a broken heart as well as broken legs. He pines daily for a lost love and Alexandria cannot quite understand the situation. She's mainly interested in the stories that he starts to tell.
When Roy speaks, the film reinvents itself and becomes a visually stunning full-blown masterpiece of the highest order. The craftsmanship of the film is so deft and clever that many scenes are flawlessly executed with only the slightest humor injected about the nature of the story itself.
The figures in the story are an explosives expert, a masked bandit, an Indian, Charles Darwin, and an ex-slave. The camera likes to ogle the make-form, which, you know, is fine with me; but it also grounds the masculine story-telling in a childlike world because often the men look ridiculous or sound weird doing the certain things they do. This is where Roy and Alexandria meet in the middle and the story formed is a child of both of theirs.
You could see "The Fall" as "The English Patient" or "Atonement" or a number of other movies, but essentially you would be lost trying to come up with a keen similarity because "The Fall" rings true of its own melody. Director Tarsem twists and curves the narrative story so minimally that it lulls you into a sense of security. The emotional power the movie has is quite overwhelming.
Movies like this: that try to accomplish something intellectual, that visually satisfy, and that emotionally bewilder make it clear that film is an art form far from dead.
"The Fall" gives Lee Pace a great platform to show his acting skills and his performance is wonderful; but ultimately the movie belongs to Catinca Untaru. Her presence is often underplayed, yet so vital that the thought of the film without her makes an empty canvas for bright colors.
"The Fall" is clever, brilliant, evocative, stunning, and fun. It's humorous, epic, and dramatic, an opera for the eyes and ears. A world within a world within a story, and what a beautiful, lovely, complex knot of intricacies this is.













Score: ★★★★

Caro Diario (1993) (Unrated)

















"Caro Diario" or "Dear Diary" is a movie in three parts with three genres and a portfolio of emotions. It could real like a résumé of sorts from Nanni Moretti, who blends and shakes up the scenes so that we're not really sure what we're watching anymore.
It begins with humor, as Nanni—as himself, the meta-feeling the film inspires is incredibly strong since we're not sure how much is diary-inspired and how much is fiction—riding his Vespa around Italy looking at the houses. He makes the comment that in the summertime, there's not very many movies to see in the theaters and he rather enjoys looking at houses instead. He rides through the city, and the camera takes note of all the architecture and the roads as Nanni makes commentary on the state of the films 'nowadays'. He finds himself going to a theater to see "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" which he absolutely hates to the point where he stalks the critic who wrote a good review about it.
Here, we can see Woody Allen superimposed on Nanni Moretti, because their choices in direction do not stray far from each other. In "Annie Hall", Allen gave all sorts of these cutaway moment and "Caro Diario" does the same thing. This is what gives it its charm and its humor.
The first part of the movie concerns Nanni on his Vespa and the second part, Nanni trying to finish his project. I think a large part of these scenes' success is the movies quirky score. It balances between sentimental and hilarious.
Yet this is a movie that you can't simply ignore. Its moments are carefully timed and each chapter carries over some thought from the previous, whether that is some odd self-deprecational humor about how easy it is to make a shitty film, or whether that's the simply presence of a Charlie Kaufman-like society where couples only have one kid and thus can't call each other on the phone anymore. Each passing second is measured. Only the finished work can really express Moretti's vision.
Of course, then we have the final chapter, in which all pretenses melt away and the autobiographical fallacy becomes a truth. Moretti paints himself as a man given to disease, finding the darkest possible way to sneak humor into his own story.
Here, I have to be reminded of "Hannah and Her Sisters" and the scenes when Woody Allen is in doctors' office, convinced that he has some sort of incurable disease. Yet Moretti is no Allen, because the viewer thinks that his symptoms are real while Allen is just being neurotic.
The film balances between different types of emotions throughout its vastly different story lines. Some fictional, some fact, some referential, and some just mad.
"Caro Diary" is the end result of many, many quick moments, blurred emotions, deep thoughts, and quirky songs. While I think that it would merit a second viewing, I find that I cannot truly do the film justice because of its uniqueness. A hipster movie to be sure, "Caro Diario" proves Moretti's talent while also somehow making us want to stand ten feet away from him and just watch him slowly lose his mind all for our enjoyment.
It's almost disturbing how well this works.











Score: ★★★½

High School (1968)

















There's something entirely disturbing and completely illuminating about how Frederick Wiseman's "High School" plays out, so short, so measured, and so powerful. It consists of observing with a purpose, for the camera manages to just sit into many classrooms and many situations that seem tense; and one would begin to assume that the manner in which everyone plasters a fake face on, this could play out as a promotional video for Northeast High School. Yet the film is far more clever than that and the viewer is assured time and time again that, while there is a bias, Wiseman is smart enough to let you figure out what that is.
I think—in "Catcher in the Rye" fashion—we all have a grudge of some kind against highschool. Whether that's how you were treated, a certain teacher, or the institution itself, there are rare cases where these years are the easiest for teens.
With a movie about a well-repsected highschool, the viewer immediately assumes a difference between the education these kids are getting and the education that lower income families are subjected to. One moment has an adult explaining why there is a severe dress-code at the senior prom. How you dress reflects the level of respect you are giving to the establishment and your peers.
In this way, we can actually see the children's minds being shaped, like a big brain filled with Play-Doh. One figure, I believe the vice principal, continually is able to get students to do exactly what he wants and if not, he suspends them. One teen is trying to get out of gym because he has "a doctor thing", but this man doesn't want to hear any excuses. The scene ends with the teen shooting off his mouth and getting suspended.
Respect is demanded from the male teachers, something that underlies the masculine way they posture and their constant corrections, as if their power rested on a thin wire and only the smallest puff of air from their students could knock it over. This reminds me of "The Tree of Life" and Brad Pitt's character. He acts like the men in this movie, tough, rough, not taking any crap from his students.
You have to honor your elders, even if they're completely wrong. Why? Because they're older than you.
One students tries to argue out of detention because he hasn't done anything wrong. The camera ogles the boy, making sure that we understand that he's the stereotypical nerd. He complains and whines and eventually says that he will stick to his principles, which means not taking detention. Super cool, the vice principal starts talking and that powerful, loaded, unfortunate phrase "be a man" comes out. In this guy's mind, being a man means taking the detention...or so he tells his student, mainly because we assume he just wants some peace and quiet. The boy's "moral character" starts to crumble and soon he takes the detention, defeated.
This is not the only time we see a student being subjected to manipulation with the idea of "their good" being used. One girl is meeting with her parents and a counselor figure about her future and her current grades. She doesn't want to go to a typical college but her father wants her to. The counselor then starts to ask all sorts of questions that we can tell will hopefully lead her back around to siding with her parents, it makes my skin crawl watching it.
But that's the power of the movie, and it isn't all bad. Some teachers have obvious passions for their work, like one English teacher who uses Paul Simon's music as an example of poetry. To some viewers in the 1960s, this might be horrifying; but to me, I see a woman dedicated to her craft and installing a love of English in her students.
"High School" is shameful at times. One scene involves a beauty pageant of sorts for a fashion class that see the teacher insulting the girls by calling them fat or saying that their legs are too big. Body image issues aside, the teacher is just cruel. Another moment has a sex ed class for boys in which the instructor is sarcastic and crass about women.
But the end is the best moment, and I'll leave that up to you to find out.
"High School" is keenly measured, and wonderfully paced. It's exactly what you'd want out of documentary and supposedly features no commentary. Just because there is no narrator, does not meant that we don't completely understand what Wiseman was trying to accomplish by the end of the film.












Score: ★★★½